blog post photo
Photo courtesy IMA

As one of the presenters at Indianapolis Museum of Art’s  Miller House Symposium on May 20, I may sound rather biased. Nevertheless I would say it was one of more interesting symposiums in which I have participated. Craig Miller, the design arts curator at IMA ingeniously decided that rather than having a full roster of historians all present didactic disquisitions about the Irwin and Xenia Miller House in Columbus, Indiana, he would have two historians place the house in differing historical contexts, and then ask three practitioners to discuss their own perspectives on each of the major designers (Eero Saarinen, Alexander Girard and Dan Kiley) who were involved in creating this significant contribution to residential architecture in 1959.

The presentations (following an introduction by IMA director Maxwell Anderson) offered a varied and substantive range of approaches to appreciating the Miller House’s creators:  Brad Dunning, a designer based in L.A, included four animated videos relating to Alexander Girard’s work, all of which were smashing. New York architect Deborah Berke talked about her long admiration of Saarinen’s architecture with an emphasis on his surprisingly small output of residential design.  It was illuminating, particularly from her own perspective as an architect. Philadelphia landscape architect Laurie Olin discussed his affinity to Dan Kiley’s design of the expansive grounds of the Miller House by analyzing Kiley’s architectural orientation. (Like Olin, Kiley studied architecture before turning to landscape.)

In the roles of the historians, Bradley Brooks, IMA’s director of historic resources and assistant curator of American decorative arts,  and I established the context in which the Miller House needs to be understood. In his talk on the architectural legacy generated by Irwin Miller for the town of Columbus, Bradley introduced telling excerpts of magazine articles (for example from the Saturday Evening Post and Architectural Forum) that were  contemporaneous with the completion of each of the buildings.

I discussed the design and use of the Miller House according to three different perspectives: first was the mid-century modern context, in which I compared the house to others designed around that time by Charles Eames, Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Second, I introduced a historically based theoretical perspective by presenting an architectural analysis undertaken by Aaron Schiller, a grandson of Irwin and Xenia Miller. As a graduate student in Yale’s architecture program Aaron has been investigating the legacy of Andrea Palladio and his nine-square grid, plus Palladio’s use of proportion and rhythm in his designs. I also discussed Schiller’s exploration of Saarinen’s tectonic achievements in the house—particularly the x-shaped steel column and how it fits into the skylighted roof grid so that the column appears to be supporting a void.

I ended the talk with a third “history” –that of the users, by quoting anecdotes of the experience of two of the Irwin and Xenia Miller’s children, Betsey Miller and her brother Will. Not only did they have amusing anecdotes about living in the house as they were growing up, but they were able to fill in information about the instrumental roles that the parents, Xenia and Irwin Miller, played as clients in the creation of this amazing domestic landmark. 

Related Links
Miller House and Garden by Eero Saarinen